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We must protect young girls from sexism in primary school

A new study suggests that gender-based assumptions about girls can have a long-lasting effect on children. Sadly, we see them all the time – and not just in our classrooms
 Gender stereotyping … is it for life?
A parent had shared a snapshot of her six-year-old child’s homework – a worksheet asking pupils to research a scientist or inventor. So far, so normal. But the question, in jaunty Comic Sans, read: “Who was he? Who was the person you have chosen to look at? How old were they when they began inventing? Did they have a wife and family?”

The frustration of the parent, who appealed to other Twitter users for suggestions of female inventors, would be dismissed by many as an overreaction to a carelessly worded question. But she is far from alone. Parents share similar homework woes with the Everyday Sexism website and Twitter account with startling regularity.

One referenced their son’s physics homework, which used examples of men pushing vans, lifting weights, climbing trees and shooting arrows. The sole female example was a woman pushing a pram. Another parent described an assignment where children were directed to use a particular biographical research website, only to find that of the 21 historical personalities listed just two were women. One person’s son had even been asked to compare the qualities of a “good wife” from Biblical to modern times (with no similar exercise discussing the merits of husbands). Numerous questions involved men doing active, strong tasks such as driving or playing sport, while women cooked, cleaned or, in one particularly bizarre example, simply “sat on a rug”.

To those who cry “overreaction”, a new study published this month by the US-based National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that gender bias at primary school may in fact have long-term implications for pupils. The study saw several groups of students take two exams, one marked blind by outside examiners, and the other marked by teachers who knew the students’ names. In maths, girls outperformed boys on the anonymously marked exam, but boys outperformed girls when assessed by teachers who knew their names, suggesting that they may have overestimated the boys’ abilities and underestimated the girls.

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Tracking the pupils to the end of high school, the researchers found that boys who were given encouragement as youngsters not only performed better later on, but were also more likely to take advanced courses involving maths, compared with girls who had been discouraged. They concluded: “Teachers’ over-assessment of boys in a specific subject has a positive and significant effect on boys’ overall future achievements in that subject while having a significant negative effect on girls.”

Of course, many teachers actively encourage girls into Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. And gender stereotypes are not only passed on at school, but also proliferate in the advertising, television, books, magazines and conversations that children are exposed to from a young age. One parent recently recounted to me the moment that their three-year old daughter picked up a toy stethoscope, only for another well-meaning adult to swoop in and comment: “Ah, are you going to be a nurse?” Not, of course, that it wouldn’t be a fine choice of profession, but what would the corresponding comment have been had a little boy chanced upon the same toy?

That young people might be deeply influenced by the gender stereotypes thrust upon them should give us all pause. How often do we heedlessly shower little girls with platitudes about prettiness and looks, or comment on how “big and strong” their brothers are growing? We hear comments about the sweetness and politeness of daughters, while sons are proudly described as boisterous, instead.

In the strictly segregated aisles of many toy stores, blue shelves mark off chemistry sets, dinosaurs and building tools as the domain of boys, while girls are left holding the (plastic) baby.

Each individual incident is easily dismissed as harmless. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with an individual child choosing to identify with any of these roles. But it’s the assumptions made for them that matter. Young children are not always equipped, as most adults are, with the critical tools to analyse and probe information – what is presented as fact is often absorbed without question. This might seem extreme, until, as I have, you visit a variety of primary school classrooms and start to realise just how many under-10s genuinely think that girls simply aren’t allowed to be footballers, or doctors, or lawyers. Ask your nearest small friend about these matters – you may be unpleasantly surprised.

The silver lining is that change is happening – several toy stores have abandoned gender segregation, partly thanks to the efforts of campaigns such as Pinkstinks and Let Toys Be Toys. The parent whose tweet first caught my eye later reported an excellent response and apology from the school. There is hope, too, in the reactions of children themselves. According to one project entry, a girl who faced her first experience of street harassment aged eight, when a passing man told her the muffin she was eating would “go straight to your hips”, patiently drew on her biology knowledge to explain: “No, it won’t, it has to go to my stomach first.” One mother described how, asked to complete a drawing for homework showing “Mummy in the kitchen”, her seven-year old son added his daddy to the picture, doing the washing up.

It’s refreshing to see how ridiculous sexism can look through children’s eyes – if we could only restrain ourselves from passing our own inherited assumptions on to them.
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2015/feb/23/sexist-assumptions-young-children-gender-stereotypes


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